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For Atlanta Civic Circle’s labor coverage this past year, we saw one clear throughline: The COVID-19 pandemic went a long way toward galvanizing employees to organize. It exacerbated underlying issues for workers already feeling stretched thin around their safety, well-being and treatment in the workplace across many different industries, while it heightened tensions between workers and owners over pay as workers struggling with rising housing and food costs watched employers reap record profits.
We launched our Labor, Democracy and the Common Good series last summer to respond to these seismic shifts. We’ve been talking to Atlanta workers new to labor organizing at Starbucks, Amazon, Delta and other companies about their relationship with their work and management, what changes they want to see in their workplace and what tangible differences they could make in their lives.
2022 was a big year for labor actions, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker, which recorded 385 strikes (defined as any temporary work stoppage) nationally–a 42.6% jump from 2021. There were just seven strikes in Georgia last year, which was only one more than in 2021–but if you factor in protests like the sip-ins that two newly unionized Starbucks stores staged in Atlanta, last year’s total statewide labor actions tally up to 15–a notable 50% increase.
Starbucks: Ansley Mall & Howell Mill
We started our labor and democracy coverage last summer by reporting on the vote–but for union elections, not at the polls. We talked to Starbucks employees very new to labor organizing at Atlanta’s Ansley Mall and Howell Mill stores about their successful campaigns to join the national Starbucks Workers United union, and we found out how they worked with community-based organizations like the New Georgia Project and the Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to drum up community support, organize their union elections–and now, fight for an actual contract.
Both stores held sip-ins timed around their union votes to demonstrate support from the community. Customers were invited to order their coffee using the name “Union Yes!” so workers could yell it across the store.
The Ansley Mall and Howell Mill stores, like every other newly unionized Starbucks outlet in the country, still do not have a contract with Starbucks. Starbucks Workers United, which represents the vast majority of unionized U.S. Starbucks employees, has clashed with corporate management over that since December of 2021, when the coffee giant’s first store unionized in Buffalo.
At the end of the year, the employee union filed multiple Unfair Labor Practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Starbucks representatives were not bargaining in good faith at the initial contract negotiation meetings held in November and December. The NLRB ruled for the union, saying Starbucks has to recognize and bargain with the union in good faith. Also, they have to post a notice of employees’ rights. Lastly, the “certification window” of a year before stores can begin voting to decertify their union has been extended.
After Ansley Mall and Howell Mill workers won their union elections last summer, they started pushing for Starbucks to come to the negotiating table to hammer out a contract. Last fall, each store staged one-day strikes to demonstrate community support and their own power, but as the year drew to a close, both stores were still trying to get Starbucks to schedule contract negotiations.
Amazon Workers: East Point, Stone Mountain & Doraville
Frustrated workers at Amazon warehouses in East Point and Stone Mountain staged walkouts, took to social media and were willing to go on the record about difficult and dangerous work conditions, lack of benefits and low pay.
Thometra Robinson, who works at the Stone Mountain warehouse, told Atlanta Civic Circle that she and about 50 coworkers staged a walkout on Sept. 14 advocating for safer working conditions, because one of their colleagues passed out on the job and management has ignored their concerns.
A small group of about 16 workers at an Amazon delivery center in Doraville staged a Prime Day walkout in July as they lobby for better benefits, pay and working conditions. Local workers have scheduled most of these labor actions for the well-publicized Prime Days, when Amazon advertises big customer discounts, to place maximum pressure and eyes on management.
So far, none of the Atlanta Amazon locations have moved towards a formal union election with Amazon Labor United or other unions. Patricio Cambas, one of the organizers at the Doraville delivery center, told Atlanta Civic Circle they’re instead opting for direct actions like walkouts because they see it as a faster way to win the immediate improvements they’re pushing for: A $3-an-hour pay increase and 24 additional hours of paid time off each year.
“Amazon has a robust union-busting plan,” Cambias said. “But when it comes to direct shop floor action, they don’t know how to deal with it.”
Delta Air Lines Flight Attendants
Pro-union Delta Air Lines flight attendants have been trying unsuccessfully to unionize for 20 years. After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their latest campaign to join the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) organizers started pushing hard last year to reignite it.
One Delta flight attendant based in Atlanta, Jason Adams, spoke with us about the changes the pandemic has wrought in his workplace, leaving flight attendants with little say over their schedules or work rules during a stressful and chaotic time. He said that’s shifted his outlook from being uninterested in a union to becoming a lead organizer.
As Delta’s corporate headquarters and airline hub, Atlanta is a hotspot for Delta flight attendants’ labor organizing. However, unionizing is quite difficult in the airline industry, especially at a large carrier like Delta. Under the usual NLRB rules, 30% of employees must sign a card demonstrating support for a union to trigger a vote–but airlines must unionize under the Railway Labor Act, which requires half of the employees plus one to sign cards.
To trigger a union election, the AFA organizers must rally a majority of Delta’s roughly 24,000 flight attendants to sign union cards–or 12,000 flight attendants who’re constantly crisscrossing the country. Logistically, that’s very tough to do. What’s more, each employee’s union card expires in a year, adding the pressure of time. So far, the Delta flight attendant organizers have not amassed enough union cards to trigger a vote.
Pressures for Railroad Workers
Nationally, the biggest industrial labor action of the year was the three-way clash between the major railroads, management for the 12 railroad craft unions, and workers over a contract that’s been under negotiation for the last two-and-a-half years. That ended in December when Congress voted to force the workers to accept a tentative agreement hammered out between railroad and union management, which kept them from legally striking–even after a majority of workers had voted against the contract and in favor of a strike.
We spoke with CSX Transportation Engineer Angel Poventud, a longtime engineer for CSX Transportation here in Atlanta, for the inside scoop on everything from the contract negotiations and how they’re affected by railroad workers’ inability to legally strike legally, to the daily pressures for workers grappling with understaffing, high turnover, and punitive requirements to be on call 24/7.
Poventud explained how the pandemic intensified these pressures, placing more demands on railroad workers to be available for shifts amid increased understaffing, and adding new urgency to their push for paid sick leave. The new contract provides pay increases, but not sick leave. We also asked him what’s coming next, as workers grow increasingly dissatisfied with their unions’ willingness to make concessions.
Labor activists in Georgia step into an interesting workplace ecosystem in 2023. If the trends of 2022 continue, workers who can organize effectively could capitalize on the current climate and push more corporations into negotiations for the first time in decades. In Atlanta, Amazon may be the one to really watch. If the largest retailer on earth sees the dam break for its Atlanta logistics hub, with workers forming a union at one of its many warehouses and delivery centers here, that could inspire workers at other retailers and warehouses to follow suit.
Want to learn more about Atlanta labor actions? Here are some highlights from our coverage:
• Atlanta CSX engineer Angel Poventud tells us what’s next for railroad workers and why railroad turnover has spiked (Q&A Part 1 & Part. 2)
• No sick days & understaffing: What’s next for railroad workers after Congress quashed their impending strike?
• Unionized Atlanta stores await Starbucks contract negotiation date
• Workers at Amazon’s Stone Mountain warehouse protest conditions